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Northeastern AIAS Chapter Recognized with “Volunteer of the Year” Award

AIAS president Luke Viscusi with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

The Northeastern University chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) had the honor of receiving the “2018 Volunteer of the Year” award from the Egleston Square Main Street organization, presented by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, for their outstanding commitment to service work in the neighborhood. Northeastern AIAS president Luke Viscusi is a master’s degree candidate in CAMD’s School of Architecture, as well as a recent graduate of the B.S. in Architecture program. After being named “AIAS Chapter Leader of the Month” this past July, we caught up with him  to hear more about the organization, the award, meeting the mayor, and more, below:

AIAS worked in the Egleston Square area on key projects, including building a ramp and initiating monthly clean-ups. How did you choose these initiatives?

Northeastern AIAS members building a ramp in the Egleston Square Peace Garden.

Our American Institute of Architecture Students chapter runs a program called ‘Freedom By Design’, which engages the community through design/build service projects. A few years ago, every Freedom By Design program within the national organization had to focus on projects that would improve accessibility. While the ramp in Egleston Square Peace Garden was born from accessibility concerns, it took on a new meaning as we became more involved in the community. I always say it was a small project with very big implications. It became a significant opportunity for our students to see that they could actually physically impact and empower their community.

The monthly clean-ups started when our client mentioned that he had to pick up trash in the Peace Garden by himself because the ownership group has historically neglected the site. Once we started doing clean-ups, it became a great way to spend a Saturday morning. It was a void in the community that could easily be filled by students, and we were invested in the success of the space.

Eventually, Egleston Square Main Streets, more specifically [executive director] Luis Cotto, just started inviting us to every event in the Peace Garden and most community meetings. We didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, but the community had taken notice of the things we were doing, and have since been making tremendous strides to continue the momentum and redevelop the Peace Garden. We are more than eager to continue our relationship and see how it evolves into new initiatives.

How did it feel to have your work acknowledged by the Mayor himself?

Visually, receiving the award was quite comical because the Mayor and his entire office pack into an Old Town Trolley Tour Bus, then go from community to community handing out awards. It’s amazing, however, to know that the Mayor and his office will go to those lengths to support and give attention to the businesses and volunteers that work so hard to improve their communities. Egleston Square Main Street named our chapter as its 2018 Volunteer of the Year because of all of the work we have done at the Peace Garden, and the relationship we have created with the community.

I am of course extremely proud of our team, and actually it is still quite surreal. There were a lot of people who put a lot of effort into designing and building that ramp. The design team, faculty that pushed us along, students that participated in the construction, and students that have played a part in the monthly clean-ups and community meetings all deserve to be recognized for their role in building our relationship with the Egleston Square community. The award certainly isn’t the ‘finish line’ here, so we definitely won’t be leaving the community just because of the recognition.

Beyond the work AIAS did for Egleston Square, what other projects have been particularly meaningful?

Everything, even the events and initiatives that went poorly. Events that ‘fail’ usually end up having a great impact because they give future students direction for continuously improving the studio culture at Northeastern. We had a lot of success last year because we learned from our mistakes, so there are a few very impactful events that always come to mind.

The Women in Architecture panel discussion, hosted by Northeastern AIAS.

Back in October of 2017 we held an event called ‘Trash To Tower’. It was a competitive building competition where attendees utilized unorthodox materials in an attempt to create the tallest tower. Not only is it an accomplishment to get architecture students to build models in their free time because that is a lot of what we do for our coursework, but it was also the first event for AIAS Boston – a collaboration between the AIAS chapters at Northeastern, Wentworth, Mass Art, and the Boston Architectural College. We even had some students from the UMASS Amherst chapter participate. One of the greatest opportunities we can give our students is a chance to build a network early on in their career, so collaboration with other chapters or organizations is something we are continuously looking out for.

A few months later, in March of 2018, we hosted a Women In Architecture panel discussion. For us, this was an extremely ambitious event because we had never really ventured into realm of advocacy outside of our own studio. Frankly, as a organization that strives to be a resource to all students within the School of Architecture, it is our job to address larger concerns that the students have. Many female students entering architecture school are rightly concerned that their professional roles will be overshadowed by their male counterparts. We sought to inform our students by connecting them with leaders who could share their perspective on the current conditions of the profession, and also to introduce them to influential female designers in Boston who constantly improve the environment for their colleagues. It was extremely well attended (we had 80 people on a Friday night), we were always excited to work on the logistics of it, and we learned a lot about things we should and shouldn’t do if we want to host an event of that scale again.

As a someone who has been leading our chapter for a few years now, some of the most rewarding experiences are the ones where I don’t actually have to do anything but provide oversight. For instance, our current Freedom By Design project at Bird Street Community Center is being handled by very passionate second and third-year students. I no longer need to get tangled up in the day-to-day processes of this initiative because I have a team I can trust leading the way. I love seeing younger students taking charge of the initiatives now because that usually means the chapter is in good hands for years to come.

I would say that most of our impact doesn’t actually come from the larger events and initiatives though. AIAS helps to strengthen our studio culture, so it’s a lot of little things we do – the conversations we have, the small stress relievers, the chances to get away from work for a few minutes, that sometimes have the biggest impact.

You were also named AIAS Chapter Leader of the month for July and have served as Chapter President – how have those experiences been for you?

This recognition was humbling because I look up to quite a few of the people who have previously been named Chapter Leader of the Month. I’ve never been one for individual honors, so I’m going to consider this a team award too. As leader, I organized the team’s upcoming year, and collectively, we all reimagined and reconsidered the types of events we wanted to host. We accomplished a lot, but there are still a bunch of initiatives and events that haven’t yet come to fruition, so I look forward to when the future executive boards can bring those ideas to life.

Being Chapter President has maybe been the most enjoyable year of my life. I don’t know if that is because of how successful we were, or how much I apparently enjoy strategic planning and creating spreadsheets, but it has been something I would not mind doing full time, if at all possible. I always used to run away from Leadership when an opportunity was presented to me. This was the first time I actually embraced it and kept pushing myself to become better at it. I definitely wasn’t always ‘Chapter Leader of the Month’ material, so I owe a huge thanks to those who have supported me and pushed me to continuously improve the way I lead. It will be hard for me to throttle down my involvement considering how much I have enjoyed it. However, I’ve already got plenty of ideas for becoming involved in Boston’s professional architecture community once I graduate next Spring. I’m happy to be stepping into the background soon, and look forward to setting the stage for new leaders to step up.

What role has our School of Architecture played in AIAS’s projects over your time here?

Everyone involved in Building the Ramp at Egleston Square Peace Garden.

We don’t operate like most student organizations at Northeastern where members may or may not go to meetings once a week. We are embedded within the School of Architecture, and play a prominent role in how students experience the architecture program. We do this through our mentor program, opportunities for professional development, and community engagement through Freedom By Design. We found ourselves in a tricky situation after building the ramp last year. People loved the experience, and it was a great event for us, but we used all our finances building it.  

We had to start from scratch financially last Summer, and had a really rough time figuring out how we were going to bring all the huge ideas we had to life. Seeing the recent success of the ramp build, the School of Architecture was more than willing to work with us on stabilizing our organization. They give us financial support, but more importantly, it becomes much easier to move forward on our endeavors when we know the faculty is also behind them.

The Director of the School of Architecture, Dan Adams, has been extremely supportive of our initiatives and even promotes them in the first-year course he teaches. Our Faculty Advisor, David Fannon, oversees the design and construction of our Freedom By Design projects, and is also always willing to give feedback on how we can improve our operations. Former faculty member Michael Smith, has always been enthusiastic about student involvement, and even played the role of ‘construction mentor’ during our ramp build. Our administrators, Mary Hughes and Kate Zephir, who I probably had to call every other day with questions, have been extremely helpful about aiding our organization in any way they possibly can. They are all very much part of our team, and thus deserve just as much recognition.